How Will SNL Handle Whitney Houston’s Death?

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As music lovers reel from the news of Whitney Houston’s tragic death at 48, SNL has inherited its own sticky situation: next Saturday’s host is Maya Rudolph, who’s perhaps best known on the show for her impression of Houston. Will Rudolph sport the honey wig, white turtleneck and rose sunglasses once more in tribute to the star? Or (more likely) will SNL ignore the coincidence and let it be a sad, uncomfortable, too-soon elephant in the room? Or will they find a successful third option and poke fun at themselves for their own poor timing? Let us turn to the past to predict the future.

In 2009, SNL aired a Weekend Update segment with a “disoriented” Brittany Murphy (you can read the transcript of the sketch here). Two weeks later, Murphy died, and the sketch was promptly pulled from Hulu. The decision confused some: how could a sketch be funny when she was alive, and not funny once she was gone?

We could note here that it’s obviously not the case that SNL is above making fun of the any recently deceased person. Last season saw a reading of Osama bin Laden’s will, and just this season we got an update from Gaddafi’s ghost. Of course, the American public’s feelings on these deaths were drastically different from those of beloved pop singers and actresses.

As with Elliott’s Brittany Murphy impression, Rudolph’s Houston largely depends on making fun of her drug abuse. Given that in both cases, drugs were leading contributors to tragic deaths at a young age, what was once lighthearted humor is in retrospect comes across as cruel insensitivity. After a while, we may be able to watch Rudolph’s old impression and think of the entire career it lampoons - the silly dance moves and randomly timed exclamations of “Alright!” - but SNL will probably be astute enough to realize that for now, it’s just too soon.